July , 2022
Covid-19 transforms India’s education landscape
00:30 am

Tushar K. Mahanti

“Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think” says Albert Einstein, one of the greatest physicists of all time. That is, education is not just the possession of degrees but developing new ways of learning that would leave a lasting effect on a person and on society.

Interestingly, like what Einstein said, the National Education Policy of India 2020 (NEP) too has prioritised education’s role as means to improving human quality and not just to increasing the number of literates. “Education is fundamental for achieving full human potential, developing an equitable and just society, and promoting national development. Providing universal access to quality education is the key to India’s continued ascent, and leadership on the global stage in terms of economic growth, social justice and equality, scientific advancement, national integration, and cultural preservation” was how the policy draft has begun setting the tenor of the new NEP.

India’s education policy stresses on an all-inclusive education system and provides free and compulsory education to all children up to the age of 14. And if the target has not been achieved yet the literacy rate has jumped hugely from about 12% in 1951 to over 74% in 2021. The Indian education system is one of the largest in the world, with more than 1.5 million schools, 8.5 million teachers and 250 million students.

With a low literacy rate and a huge number of children, India needed an education policy to look into minor details of the system. India got its first broad-based and articulate education policy more than two decades after independence, in 1968. In 1986, the government introduced a new NEP with special emphasis on the removal of disparities and to equalise educational opportunities.

In view of the rapid changes the world is undergoing in the knowledge landscape and the rising compulsion to synergise education with other facets of the economy, a new National Education Policy was introduced in July 2020 in the midst of Covid-19. 

Impact of Covid-19 on Indian education

Understandably, the timing of the introduction of the NEP 2020 proved somewhat incorrect, but then the government was committed to roll on the new policy and was probably not expecting the Covid-19 pandemic to have such a huge impact on the lives of people and on the education system.    

Covid-19 led to an economic crisis, probably more sweeping and wider than ever before and it caused disruption of learning on an unprecedented scale across the world. The pandemic affected 68.5% of enrolled learners across 153 countries due to countrywide lockdowns globally (UNESCO, 2020). India, with a huge number of students, was among the worst sufferers. All education institutions in the country were closed down following the lockdown in March 2020, at the time when most schools were about to wrap up the 2019–20 academic year.

Closures of educational institutions affected millions of students from pre-primary to secondary levels of schooling. And the hasty and ill-prepared transition from face-to-face to distance learning resulted in vast inequalities within the education system between and within states. Inequalities were evident in the capacity of teachers, learning outcomes, digital infrastructure provided by the government and access to technology. Although a lot of digital content was generated and transmitted immediately after the closures of educational institutes to help children continue to learn from home, there was limited evidence on the extent to which these facilities came as an effective replacement of face-to-face learning. A big problem that came as an obstacle to online learning was the lack of adequate digital facilities across the country, especially in villages.

A report by Oxfam India indicated that children studying in government schools were hit particularly hard, with more than 80% of government school students in Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh not receiving any educational materials during the lockdown. This was mostly because families did not have access to digital devices and e-learning tools. In homes that had digital access, WhatsApp was the primary mode (75%) for delivering education in both public and private schools, followed by phone calls between teachers and students (38%). But more than 75% of parents had trouble with WhatsApp lessons because of the lack of an internet connection or the inability to afford it, and sometimes poor internet speed/signal. (India Case Study Situation Analysis on the Effects of and Responses to COVID-19 on the Education Sector in Asia – Unesco)

A status report by UNISEF on schools during Covid-19 too had corroborated the Oxfam India’s findings and indicated that children studying in government schools were hit particularly hard, with more than 80% of government school students in Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh not receiving any educational materials during the lockdown.

The learning loss due to the pandemic was staggering. A report ‘(RE)BUILD BACK BETTER’ by 16 leading Indian organisations working in the education sector released in 2021 to gauge the extent of learning loss for children from grade two to grade six in 44 districts across India found that over 82% students in this category had forgotten their foundational capabilities in mathematics and over 92% in languages. Closures of schools also affected the socio-emotional well-being of the students. Around 33% of 5 to 13-year-old children and 14 to 18-year-old children were reported to have been affected by poor mental health.

The gender gap in learning too widened; something the country has been trying to reduce for years. Over 10 million girls in India are likely to drop out of schools due to the pandemic. Apart from learning, 250 million students suffered from lack of nutrition which was made available to children through the mid-day meal schemes, due to closure of schools.

Digitalisation of education

Despite multiple challenges, the pandemic has presented several opportunities to review and reimagine how learning could happen and continue without classrooms. For example, the pandemic has accelerated the rise of EdTech companies, thanks to the adoption of technology for teaching and learning. They continued to grow in 2021, with some interesting developments. The growth of EdTech companies was also propelled by the changing need for skills by industries among its workforces.

With hybrid or online teaching and learning becoming the norm, 2021 saw a lot of educational institutions in tier II and III cities embracing digital technologies for content generation and as a channel for instruction.

Another trend that has inundated the Indian EdTech space is ’personalisation’ of learning. Mass customisation through “Personalised Adaptive Learning (PAL)” technologies was attempted by the government as well as private schools. Indian EdTech players also quickly realised the need to make vernacular content to target a wider pool of students and consumers from tier II and tier III cities.

In higher education too, EdTech made a significant presence. According to a survey in 2021, 31% of respondents said they felt stuck due to the effect of the pandemic and 65% of respondents said they enrolled in up-skilling in the past year to strengthen their career.

That is, 2021 did present its fair share of challenges, but due to and despite the pandemic, it also created several opportunities in the sector for government and private institutions. Service providers, particularly EdTech players - infrastructure, hardware and application providers saw high revenues coming their way. It also saw many Unicorns and ‘Soonicorns’ emerging in this space – fuelling a frenzy of investment activities. From catalysing the adoption of technology to focussing on skilling and up-skilling, the education sector is on the cusp of transformation – guided by a forward-looking policy. 

From Byju’s to Eruditus — India now has four edtech unicorns, thanks to a $4 billion fund flowing in since 2020. Two other unicorns in the sector were Unacademy and UpGrad.

That EdTech players have flourished during the pandemic days and are still booming is not surprising considering the growing impact of digital learning in the Indian education ecosystem. The integration of technology into teaching and learning is not new, but the rapid rate and pace of technological advancement is new, especially regarding new Internet, ICT and digital technologies.

According to a survey conducted in 2021 by Cerebranium, an online education informative centre, about 95.4% institutions were conducting digital examinations. About 91% institutions were using video conferencing tools for both online classes and digital examinations. More than half (55%) of the surveyed students, the main stakeholders, were reported comfortable with the online mode of education.

National Education Policy 2020

It is with this background that NEP 2020 laid down a framework that took a holistic approach to education and skill development. A change of this magnitude warranted active and continuous involvement of all stakeholders which was not possible due to the near complete shutdown at the time the policy was implemented. Nevertheless, a number of initiatives were launched towards the achievement of the NEP objectives. 

Maybe, the number of students, the number of schools, colleges and universities as also the gross enrolment ratio increased steadily over the years, but India needed a more cohesive education policy to put its school education at par with the global standard. The much-awaited reforms in the Indian education system came in 2020 with a comprehensive framework to guide the development of education in the country.

The new NEP aims for a holistic and universalisation of education from pre-school to secondary level with 100% gross enrolment ratio in school education by 2030. Given that there are around 350 million Indians today in school-going or college-going age groups, the NEP calls for a large-scale implementation of a magnitude never before attempted anywhere in the world.

In school education, the policy focuses on overhauling the curriculum, “easier” board examinations, a reduction in the syllabus to retain “core essentials” and thrust on “experiential learning and critical thinking”. In a significant shift from the 1986 policy which pushed for a 10+2 structure of school education, the new NEP proposed a “5+3+3+4” design corresponding to the age groups 3-8 years (foundational stage), 8-11 (preparatory), 11-14 (middle), and 14-18 (secondary). This brings early childhood education under the ambit of formal schooling. The mid-day meal programme will be extended to pre-school children. The new system will have 12 years of schooling with three years of Anganwadi/ pre-schooling.

The NEP 2020 focuses on students’ mother tongue as the medium of instruction even as it sticks to the ‘three language formula’ but also mandates that no language would be imposed on so long as at least two of the three languages are native to India.

Under the NEP, undergraduate degrees will be of either 3 or 4-year duration with multiple exit options within this period. Colleges will be mandated to give certificates after completing one year in a discipline or field including vocational and professional areas, a diploma after two years of study, or a Bachelor's degree after a 3-year programme.


Public expenditure on education

The NEP has visioned a massive change in India’s education landscape. The schools and colleges need to revamp their education models in order to comply with NEP 2020. This definitely requires additional government funding. The government is expected to focus on the implementation of the new policy through quality and free education and skill development which in turn will lead to job creation in the country. The new policy has in fact, calls for public investment on education to 6% of GDP. India’s education budget has never touched this number yet.

However, the numbers of the education budget do not justify the government's stated intent towards the sector, one of the worst hit by the pandemic. In the 2021-22 Budget, the first one after the implementation of the new NEP, the education sector received an allocation of `93,224 crore (BE) as compared to `99,300 crore (BE) in 2020-21 – down by 6%. The revised estimate for 2021-22 was even lower at `88,002 crore.

In the 2022-23 Budget, FM has focused on digital mode of learning to reverse the learning loss caused by the academic disruption due to the pandemic. She has proposed to set up a digital university. She talked of universalisation of quality education and has also proposed that high-quality e-content in all spoken languages will be developed and ‘one class-one TV channel’ programme of PM eVidya will be expanded from 12 to 200 TV channels.

Implementation of these proposals would need more funds. However, the education sector was allotted `1,04,278 crore -- a rise of only `11,054 crore from the previous year. The allocation in the last budget was higher than that of the previous year, experts believed it to be far too small considering the government’s ambitious targets. In fact, to meet the 6% of GDP criteria as envisaged in NEP 2020, the education budget for 2022-23 should have been almost double that of last year’s allocation.


Expenditure on education



% of GDP

% of total exp

















Source: Economic Survey 2021-22


But then, this has been the story for years. As per the Economic Survey 2022 the expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP was only 3.1% of GDP in 2021-22, the same as in the previous year. Education’s share in GDP was pathetically low at 2.8% in three consecutive years prior to 2019-20.


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